PUBLISHER'S NOTEBOOK: Election information here for all but judicial campaigns
Tuesday, October 26, 2010 4:48 AM
Readers have plenty of material to help them make decisions at the polls next Tuesday as our newspapers have compiled information on the local candidates running for office. Candidates for local offices, ranging from city council to state senator, have filled out surveys that ask their views on the issues. Their answers are printed in this week's edition.
For the three school districts that have operating levy referendum questions on the ballots, we have been providing information in articles in our appropriate newspapers about these important decisions as well.
The schools are all facing the same problems of declining state aid, which is compounded by the state decision to shift funds from one year to the next. Local schools are a key resource for our small towns and a decision on this issue is important.
The levies are for operating funds, not buildings, thus there is little vocal opposition to them. All of the money raised goes to educating children.
We don't have the space for state and federal offices, but you can get similar information from our Minnesota Newspaper Association, which also sent out surveys to these candidates. Their answers can be found on the MNA website at www.mna.org. When you get to the home page, click on the 2010 political candidate survey link under the "What's New" box on the right side of the page.
For all the information our newspapers and our newspaper association provides, there is one area that has little information provided to make a decision as a voter. It also happens to be the area with the most decisions.
Voters will decide on at least 20 elections for judicial offices Nov. 2. Every one of the contests on ballots in this area will involve an incumbent. Yet, only a handful of the incumbents have challengers.
One of the challengers for Supreme Court, Greg Wersal, was in our area recently campaigning. This is in no way an endorsement for Wersal, but his campaign does bring up interesting points that highlight some of the deficiencies of our election process for judges.
Wersal claims the lack of information on judicial candidates doesn't happen by accident. Rather, it happens by design. Incumbent judges have designed a system to protect their seats on the court.
No incumbent judge of the Minnesota Supreme Court has been defeated in an election in more than 50 years. Like many other judicial elections, there has not been an election for chief justice since 2000. The reason: Often an incumbent judge will resign prior to the end of a term, resulting in an appointment to fill the vacant position, thus guaranteeing that the next election will have an incumbent listed on the ballot.
Wersal wants to see judicial elections similar to all other elections. He, along with the Republican party of Minnesota, filed a lawsuit several years ago and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the practice of forbidding candidates from stating their views on legal and political issues is a violation of free speech. In another court case, he was able to strike down the prohibition on party endorsement of candidates.
Candidates like him are raising more awareness of these often forgotten races that leave voters with more questions than answers when they get to the polls.
However, there is another view, which has been expressed in this column in previous years, that politicizing judicial elections could lead to problems. Huge sums of money have been spent in other states on judicial elections.
Often the advertising focuses on hot button issues that imply how a judge would vote on matters coming before them on the court. It gives the impression that judicial decisions are for sale.
As an alternative, Minnesota has had a push for merit selection with retention elections. Judges would be appointed on merit only, not politics, and voters would get to decide in elections whether to retain these judges.
Wersal is right about one thing, though. It is time for a change in the way the judiciary is chosen. However, vigorous, partisan contests leave the door open to big money campaigns that can undermine confidence in the impartiality of the courts.
Reformers are pushing for a constitutional amendment to put before voters that would provide for the appointment of all judges followed by periodic retention elections. The retention elections would let voters decide whether to keep or remove a judge, with a successor appointed in case of removal.
The debate on this issue needs to move forward before the 2012 election so that the state's judicial elections are more clearly defined. Too many voters will arrive at the polls Tuesday to find a ballot with so many judicial choices they don't have a clue about. Even if by design with good intentions, that doesn't do anything to further the perception of the impartiality of the courts.